SPECIAL REPORT

THE MAPLE LEAF MAFIA

FROM MARY PICKFORD TO MICHAEL J. FOX, THE GREAT HOLLYWOOD DREAM CONTINUES TO LURE CANADIANS

July 3 1989
SPECIAL REPORT

THE MAPLE LEAF MAFIA

FROM MARY PICKFORD TO MICHAEL J. FOX, THE GREAT HOLLYWOOD DREAM CONTINUES TO LURE CANADIANS

July 3 1989

There are many kinds of Hollywood tours. Visitors can gaze at stars’ mansions and graves. They can play hopscotch on Hollywood Boulevard’s star-studded sidewalks. They can stroll from the Wild West to outer space in a studio tour. But there is one tour not offered by any official guide: an excursion into the world of Canadian expatriates. About one million Canadians live in Los Angeles, which makes it the fourth-largest Canadian city. Among them are some of Hollywood’s top actors, directors, producers and screenwriters. They are an invisible Mafia, whose members look, talk and act so much like Americans that sometimes they even fool themselves. Maclean’s Senior Writer Brian D. Johnson visited them at home, on the set and on the freeway. His report:

I checked in at the modest but newly fashionable Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. It is a landmark in the tawdry heart of old Hollywood—its ballroom hosted the first Oscars. And right out in front, set into the sidewalk of Hollywood Boulevard in coral terrazzo and brass, is the star of a Canadian—director Norman Jewison.

I soon found other Canadians immortalized on the Walk of Fame, including Raymond Burr, whose star sits under the marquee of a porno theatre showing Cream Dreams and Vixen Girls. Jay Silverheels, who played Tonto in TV’S The Lone Ranger, lurks beneath a store window full of fluorescent bikinis. Game-show host Monty Hall holds down a corner beside a bank. Still other Canadians passed underfoot—Leslie Nielsen, William Shatner, Guy Lombardo, Paul Anka, Anne Murray. Then, on Vine Street, I came across a lineup of about 100 people waiting in front of a Hollywood bookstore. They were there to meet Fay Wray, the Alberta-born leading lady who played an ape’s main squeeze in 1933’s King Kong and who was now signing copies of her autobiography, On the Other Hand. An elegant 81-year-old in a violet dress, Wray said that her childhood had left her with an unforgettable image of Canada. “I remember this beautiful meadow,” she said, “full of wild flowers with the mountains behind it.”

Back on Hollywood Boulevard, an evangelist with a megaphone calmly forecast doom. No one listened. I found the star of Mary Pickford, the Toronto-born actress who was known as “America’s Sweetheart,” under the vacant window of an out-of-business jewelry store. One of the earliest movie stars, she was the first woman to become a studio mogul. She and her husband, actor Douglas Fairbanks, Hollywood’s original royal couple, lived in Pickfair, the most famous of all the Camelot mansions in Beverly Hills. It now belongs to a less aristocratic couple, actress-singer Pia Zadora and her husband, Meshulam Riklis. A drive through the great walled maze of Beverly Hills led to the house near the top of Summit Drive, an immense white mansion with green shutters that looks like an uptown version of Green Gables. No one answered the buzzer at the gate. The only sign of life was a pencilled note telling the cable TV man to use the side entrance.

Leaving the shrine-like silence of Beverly Hills, I moved on to more contemporary terrain: downtown. Many Los Angeles residents never go there. So many mini-cities make up the urban sprawl of Greater Los Angeles that the official downtown is no more central than anywhere else. But it is unique. Just steps from the office towers there are streets of drug addicts and people living in cardboard shelters. There, in a disused firehall on skid row, a former Torontonian, director Ivan Reitman, was filming this summer’s Ghostbusters II with a cast that included Canadians Dan Aykroyd and Rick Moranis. The stars’ Winnebagos sat in the parking lot like covered wagons, a bizarre sight in a neighborhood of people who sleep on the sidewalk.

During a break in the filming, Aykroyd stepped outside to go to his trailer. A dishevelled black man passing by recognized him and cried: “The good Lord is smiling on me today—Dan Aykroyd! Can I shake your hand?” Aykroyd, dressed in his Ghostbuster uniform, gladly obliged. They shook hands through a gap in the steel fence, then went their separate ways. After shooting resumed, uniformed offduty police guarding the parking lot watched men openly dealing and smoking crack across the street. Breaking the boredom, an officer finally strolled over and frisked one of them. Emptying the man’s pockets, the officer ground a little piece of crack into the sidewalk, smashed the pipe used to smoke it, then took the addict’s red plastic lighter to the middle of the street. He stopped an oncoming truck, kicked the lighter under the front wheel and waved the driver on.

Too much crime, too much poverty, too much wealth—Los Angeles thrives on extremes. It is a city that remains calm in the face of drive-by shootings and earthquakes: everyone waits for the Big One. But Hollywood still manages to manufacture some of North America’s most reassuring images of security. On Soundstage 24 at Paramount Studios, the hit sitcom Family Ties was wrapping up its seventh and final season. Michael J. Fox, the superstar from Burnaby, B.C., showed up for rehearsal dressed in blue jeans, a black T-shirt and a black sports jacket. He used to drive a Ferrari to work, at terrifying speeds. Now that he is married, he has geared down to a gentler, kinder car. “I got this big German tank, a monster BMW,” he said, adding that he does not miss the fast lane. “I really love being married.”

But his pregnant wife, actress Tracy Pollan, (she had a baby boy, Sam, on May 30) was not seeing much of her new husband. He was working day and night, commuting from Paramount to Universal Studios, where he was filming two Back to the Future sequels, back to back. Said Fox: “They really got me kickin’ ass. I’ll be working from 5 this afternoon until 5 tomorrow morning.”

Fox still cherishes his ties with Canada. Until recently, he played on the Celebrity All-Stars hockey team with such teammates as actor and fellow Canadian Alan Thicke. In a friendly game against the NHL Old Timers last year, opponent Bobby Orr offered to set up a breakaway for Fox. “He said he’d let me poke the puck through his legs,” said Fox. “I’d forgotten about it, until this play where I was trying to get past Orr. The puck just bounced off his skate, and I got around him for a breakaway. At first, I was so excited that I’d beaten Bobby Orr—then I remembered that he’d planned the whole thing.” Now there is no time for hockey, Fox added. “Your priorities change when you get married.” The conversation was cut short by a crew member telling him that his wife was on the phone. “See what I mean?” he said, darting off to take the call.

Around the corner in a tiny office was another Canadian, Family Ties story editor Katie Ford, a 24-year-old from Toronto. “Katie,” Fox had said, “is really kickin’ butt.” Indeed, after two years of working for Ties, Ford has written Skirts, a movie comedy that Columbia Pictures will start filming soon. “It’s about girl gangs in the 1960s who dance in the Bronx,” said Ford, who has a serious face framed by dirty-blond hair. “But it will probably be filmed in Toronto, hopefully right in front of North Toronto Collegiate.” That is where she went to school, while moonlighting as a nightclub comedian. Ford, who left Canada when she was 21, values her roots. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there are so many Canadians here and that they’re so special,” she said. “By not being in the American mainstream, and not having a star system, they have to work that much harder. They have a completely different perspective.”

Every year between January and March, Canadian actors arrive in Los Angeles in droves, not just to flee the cold but to audition for new TV shows. Said Lisa Howard, a 24-year-old actress born in Kingston, Ont., who moved to Los Angeles last year: “Pilot season hits, and they all come down. It’s very comforting.” Howard has a steady job on the NBC daytime soap Days of Our Lives. I talked to her in her cramped dressing room, where she was in costume—black stiletto heels and a blue denim miniskirt—waiting to play another day in the life of April, a Hispanic girl in perpetual trouble. It seemed a strange twist of casting in a city full of Hispanic cooks, dishwashers and parking valets.

Howard clings closely to her own expatriate community. Once a month, she plays broomball with a group of Canadians on the Culver City rink where the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings practise. “There’s a very strong Canadian grapevine.” she said. “Everybody’s asking each other all these questions—‘Who’s your lawyer? How did you get your working papers?’ If I had my druthers, though, I’d be working in Canada. I think most of us would like to be back home.”

Some of their American rivals would like to see them leave—Canadians have become serious competition. Two of the three leading roles in last year’s short-lived ABC drama series Studio 5B went to Canadians: Kerrie Keane and Wendy Crewson. “It’s a little ironic,” said Keane over breakfast. “The actors here are up in arms because the Canadians are taking so many roles. But carloads of Americans are going up to Canada to take roles [in U.S. productions].” As with almost every Hollywood Canadian that is on the tour, Keane’s affection for Canada is mixed with bitterness. She added: “You can’t spend too long in a country that doesn’t respect its own. Canada is a wonderful training ground, but they don’t want anyone to get ahead of anyone else.”

Getting ahead is the name of the game in Hollywood. And Canadian newcomers trying to find a place on the board often start by looking up director Ralph Thomas and his wife, producer Vivienne Leebosh. Former Montrealers, Thomas and Leebosh have found their niche. They live in a split-level house with a pool perched on a hillside above Sunset Boulevard. It is a great location, but there are too many helicopters. Said Leebosh: “Whenever anything happens, zoom, the helicopter police arrive—that’s how they chase criminals.”

In the soft late-afternoon light, they sat in a room of black leather couches and checkerboard tiles. Actor Nick Mancuso dropped by. An old friend, he had starred in Ticket to Heaven, Thomas’s 1981 feature about cult victims. Discussion soon turned into a familiar rant about the Canadian film industry. Mancuso complained that a bureaucratic elite enforces creative mediocrity. Thomas agreed: “Canada blew a marvellous opportunity to become a major film country. First it tried to manufacture films designed outside the country—like the auto industry. Second, it set aside money to make all these parochial little movies in the name of nationalism. If you’re a writer or director, there’s no future for you there.”

“Get out of Canada!” That was also the advice of James Orr and Jim Cruickshank. It is easy for them to talk: they are two of Hollywood’s most successful screenwriters. Both former film students at Toronto’s York University, they co-wrote Three Men and a Baby, a comedy that became 1987’s number 1 hit at the box office, grossing $170 million in North America. They were having lunch at one of their favorite haunts—the St. James’s Club, an exclusive retreat whose members range from Elizabeth Taylor to Joan Collins. In a white art deco tower on Sunset, the members’ dining room overlooks a pool bordered by droopy little concrete palms. Both writers were dressed in shades of charcoal. Orr is 36, dark and divorced; Cruickshank, 39, is bearded and married. Orr did the talking.

The success of Three Men has catapulted them into “a very rarefied league,” he said. “Now we don’t write anything that we don’t produce or direct.” They are currently producing Chapel of Love, a new CBS sitcom with fellow Canadian Fox working off-camera as coproducer. It is a comedy about a 24-hour wedding service in Las Vegas. “When we were developing the idea last year,” said Orr, “I was getting divorced, Jim was celebrating his 10th anniversary, and Michael was getting married—I figure we had the subject covered from every angle. It’s an absolute coincidence that we’re all Canadians, but we’ve often kidded each other about it.”

Canadian writers seem to have an edge in Hollywood. “Because we grow up observing America from the sidelines, through TV and whatnot,” said Orr, “we have a higher appreciation of what Americans take for granted.” But he added that after living in Los Angeles for 11 years, “I feel like I’m very much part of America now.” And he has learned to play the Hollywood game. “It’s positively machiavellian,” he said. “If you come out with 40 to 50 per cent of your original vision intact, you’re doing well.”

For Hollywood’s movers and shakers, a typical day begins with a power breakfast in the Polo Lounge or the Westwood Marquis Hotel. I met Canadian director Ted Kotcheff in the Westwood’s large, leaf-green restaurant. Best known for The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and the original Rambo movie, First Blood, Kotcheff has been busy lately directing two new movies, Winter People and Weekend at Bernie’s. Kotcheff says that he has sworn off Canadian films ever since his frustrating experience directing 1985’s movie/CBC mini-series Joshua Then and Now—in the name of Canadian content, CBC executives vetoed his attempt to cast an American, actress Cybill Shepherd, in a starring role. Still, Kotcheff does plan to direct a sequel to the Montreal-made Duddy Kravitz in a few years. At the suggestion that he shoot it in Los Angeles and change the street signs, he replied: “Great idea. We could bring in snow and build winding staircases on the houses.”

Living in Los Angeles since 1975, Kotcheff has joined what is known here as the “teardown” trend. He tore down his hilltop house and spent $1.7 million—a modest outlay by local standards—building a new one. He insisted on having no big rooms. Said Kotcheff: “I’ve been in Bel Air living rooms as big as this restaurant. You find yourself crowding into corners for intimacy. No wonder the divorce rate is so high in this town.”

Kotcheff, who has five children from two marriages, has learned that Los Angeles is a difficult place to raise a family. He recalled looking for a school for his daughter Kate 10 years ago, when she was 14. First they visited a posh private school for girls, he said. “We saw all these convertible roadsters with vanity licence plates—Melissa, Melody, Sherry—and Kate turned to me and said, ‘Not here, Dad.’ ” Later, they visited the local public school and saw two policemen pinning a spread-eagled black youth against the wall. Again Kate turned to her father and said, “Not here, Dad.”

One of television’s most popular fathers is Alan Thicke, star of the ABC family sitcom Growing Pains. Born in Kirkland Lake, Ont., Thicke now lives in Toluca Lake, an L.A. suburb, where he owns a salmon-colored stucco mansion on a 2-1/2-acre lot with tennis courts and a pool. Just five years ago, he and his two sons were living in a cramped two-bedroom bungalow, and he was coping with the failure both of his marriage and his brief career as a TV talk-show host. He was the 120th person auditioned for Growing Pains. “They’d looked at everybody in town,” he explained, “and somebody finally said, ‘Why don’t we get an Alan Thicke type?’ It was an oddball piece of casting and it worked.”

At his house, Thicke sat behind a desk in an office plastered with honors and memorabilia, from his high-school graduation certificate to his picture on the cover of Playgirl. One of Wayne Gretzky’s old Edmonton Oiler sweaters hangs on display. Thicke, who plays amateur hockey in two local leagues, counts Gretzky as a best friend, along with Canadian record producer David Foster. “The three of us have gone through a lot of things together,” Thicke said, “and in the past couple of years, we’ve all seen relationships come and go and marriages crumble.” Thicke’s divorce, which resulted in shared custody of his two sons, made him a more devoted parent, he said. The father he portrays on Growing Pains “is a little dorkier than me,” he added, “but it’s a character I have created out of self-awareness of my follies and assets as a parent.”

Influenced by the best of American and British TV, Canadians have their own angle on comedy, Thicke said. “There’s John Candy’s matter-of-fact humility, Michael Fox’s nervousness, Dan Aykroyd’s serioso thing—we’re all straight men.” Meanwhile, Thicke tried to arrange for Foster, a musical straight man with no acting experience, to audition for the father’s role on a new NBC sitcom pilot. “You want quirky casting,” Thicke said he told the director. “I’ve got a guy for you.”

I found Foster in Malibu, at the end of a breezy drive up the blue edge of the Pacific coast. Not far from the beach, his studio lies on a pine-shaded property with gardens and tennis courts. In a control room stacked with 14 synthesizer keyboards, he and his engineers were constructing rhythm tracks for a new song. Mid-afternoon, they broke for a game of doubles. Already in shorts, they picked up rackets from a heap by the door and escaped into the California sun.

Later, I went with Foster to the L.A. Forum for a hockey game, taking a long detour to Malibu to pick up his fiancée, actress Linda Jenner, and their three children from previous marriages. The freeway was jammed. We passed the time talking about life in the fast lane. Foster, 39, who has worked with stars ranging from Barbra Streisand to Paul McCartney, is a reformed workaholic. Like Thicke, he was persuaded by divorce to make fatherhood his top priority—he has four children altogether. “I don’t like to work more than six hours a day now,” he said. Describing his friendships with Thicke and Gretzky, he added: “It’s like we have this little secret together. As Canadians, we’re taught we can’t compete with Americans. And here we are, each of us successful in international terms.”

At the Forum, after two periods of lousy hockey, the Calgary Flames roasted the Kings 9-3, and the final period turned into an ugly brawl, which the fans loved. Foster led the way to the dressing room after the game. Gretzky, who had changed into a gold shirt and bolero tie, looked depleted and wan. “Hi Gretz—it sure was brutal out there,” said Foster. Gretzky shrugged. “The sun will come up in the morning,” he said. Outside the dressing room, Foster’s fiancée, Linda, hugged and kissed Gretzky, telling him, “You look like you lost a lot of weight out there tonight.” Said Gretzky: “I think I lost my mind out there.”

The next night, the Great One was a special guest at the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation’s $250-a-person gala, where Kings owner Bruce McNall was honored as JDF Man of the Year. The event was staged in a vast atrium of concrete and glass, around tables draped in black cloth speckled with silver glitter, each with a centrepiece of lilies bursting from a white figure skate. The stars on hand included Dudley Moore, Andy Williams, Sheena Easton—and Joan Rivers, who said about the hockey players in the crowd, “It’s nice to see men in tuxedos with no teeth.” The Canadian celebrities included Gordon Lightfoot, Paul Anka and game-show host Alex Trebek. Thicke introduced Trebek as a native of Sudbury, where “semiformal means having your fly done up.”

Gretzky and his princess bride created the most commotion at the event, which marked their first splashy Hollywood appearance together. Asked how he likes life in Los Angeles, Gretzky replied: “It’s really different. I was always treated tremendously in Canada, but it’s really nice to be able to sit down in a restaurant and know that people aren’t staring at me.” In Hollywood, where stars are common and the famous can go unrecognized, the Great One had found a measure of anonymity. And although his team would not make the Stanley Cup finals, the defeat would leave him free to host an episode of NBC’s Saturday Night Live in May. Now, if he can just find a role in a family sitcom, he may even begin to feel at home—and perhaps score a star on the Walk of Fame.